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Empirical Studies in Law: ESRC Wales Doctoral Training Partnership PhD Collaborative Studentship: ‘Countering Online Terrorist Propaganda whilst Respecting the Right to Free Speech’ in Collaboration with the Tech Against Terrorism


Hillary Rodham Clinton School of Law

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Prof S Macdonald No more applications being accepted Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Swansea University, supported by the ESRC Doctoral Training Partnership for Wales (Wales DTP), invites applications for funded PhD study, available to start in October 2021.

The right to free speech is enshrined in law at the national, transnational and international levels. It is also widely regarded as an essential component of an effective counterterrorism strategy. At the same time, however, the ready availability of terrorist propaganda and instructional content online is a pressing concern for policymakers and gives rise to questions regarding the legal limits to freedom of expression. Understanding, balancing, and implementing these competing obligations is also a significant challenge for tech companies, especially small platforms. This is manifest in the “Christchurch Call”, signed by numerous national governments and tech companies following the live-streamed attacks on two mosques in New Zealand in 2019. The aim of the Call is the “elimination of online terrorist content” whilst maintaining a “free, open and secure internet”.

Specific challenges that the student might choose to study include:

1. The extreme right: removing extreme right propaganda presents unique challenges. The extreme right “milieu” comprises a fast-changing and complex overlapping of individuals, groups, movements, political parties and media organs – very few of which are officially designated as terrorist groups. Things are complicated further by the variety of powerful actors that identify with this content, leading some to question the propriety of removing it. 

2. Media coverage: a study of the dissemination of the Christchurch attack video found that it went viral only after two British newspapers shared it online. Similarly, an IS video of the immolation of a Jordanian pilot reached an audience of millions after it was shared by Fox News. Examples like these have led to concerns that news media coverage serves to amplify the terrorist message.

3. Researchers’ responsibilities: some published work has provided detailed descriptions of how terrorist groups have successfully evaded the automated content removal technology of the biggest platforms whilst some online repositories of terrorist propaganda have no registration requirement or password protection. This has led to concerns that researchers may be increasing the discoverability of such materials. 

Using a combination of traditional legal analysis, stakeholder interviews and content analysis, the aims of the project are to: (1) produce an empirically-grounded analysis of the application of the right to free speech in efforts to combat online terrorist content by examining the experiences and perceptions of stakeholders who are tasked with implementing the “Call”, and; (2) advance understanding of how the right to free speech applies in contemporary digital environments which is significant given that the leading case law on this right pre-dates the advent of social media. The project will make a contribution at both the theoretical level (offering empirically-grounded insights to debates about how to address competing rights/interests in counterterrorism law/policy) and the policy/practical level (assisting in the development of primers and best practice guides for TAT to use in its outreach work with the tech industry).

Eligibility

A fully-funded Wales DTP studentship is available to both UK and international (including EU and EEA) students. All applicants will be eligible for a full award consisting of a maintenance stipend and payment of tuition fees at the UK research organisation rate. Applicants must satisfy studentship eligibility requirements. For further details, see the UKRI web site.  

Academic eligibility:

ESRC studentships are highly competitive. Candidates should have an excellent background in the social sciences, holding a first or an upper second class bachelor’s degree; applications from those who hold a relevant research training master’s degree (or have an equivalent background in research training) will also be considered for a ‘+3’ award.

Employment:

Full-time ESRC studentship award holders cannot hold either a full-time job or a permanent part-time job during the period of their award. Part-time ESRC studentship award holders cannot hold a full-time job.

How to apply

To apply, please visit our website.


Funding Notes

Studentship awards commence in October 2021 and will cover your tuition fees as well as a maintenance grant (currently £15,285 per annum for 2020/21 for full-time students, updated each year) and includes access to an additional Research Training Support Grant (RTSG). There are other opportunities and benefits available to studentship holders, including an overseas fieldwork allowance (if applicable), internship opportunities, overseas institutional visits and other small grants.


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